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September 2002

The Sacred Tie

by Sunaura

Within the complexities of Auroville's cultures, the traditions of the Tamil people predominate. Their lives, whether Aurovilian or not, intertwine with all who live in this township.

Tense moments preparing for the marriage

Amongst the many ceremonies and rituals of the Tamil culture, marriage overrides all others in the development and growth of each village. It is through marriage that family and community structure is built, a support system that eludes many western societies.

Although "love" marriage is a concept more commonly accepted today, arranged marriages are still practiced to the larger degree in this area. Unlike in the Western tradition, marriage is not something that waits years to be discussed. When a Tamil child is born, her marital destiny begins to be carved out for her. Within the large extended families of Tamil Nadu (and they can be very large), a child's birth is discussed and possible marriage proposals are taken seriously. It is not yet a time for papers or astrologers, yet spoken words between family members can hold a strong commitment.

Over compliments on the beauty of a daughter or strength of a son, mothers and fathers will match their newborns to suitable future spouses. Many look for matches within their own lineage. Typically, the boy will be two to three years older than the girl. If marrying a cousin, he must be either her father's sister's child or her mother's brother's child.

Consequently, as she grows up, the young bride often knows about her husband to be. Her girlfriends, who may envy her position, might tease her. Or she and her friends might find this boy entirely disagreeable. Sometimes, the girl romanticizes about her marriage only to have the outcome change when the time has come. Many factors are reconsidered when the girl reaches puberty. Did the boy's family lose or gain status in the community? Is there a better match for their daughter? What dowry will be expected? "You don't know what is in the mind of the girl when she comes and sits on the dais for marriage. She will have gone through so many stages in her life before accepting the hand of this boy," says Meenakshi, a long-time Aurovilian who works extensively with the Tamil community.

When the boy's family is interested and the girl has come of age, a relative, friend or, on rare occasions, a broker, will approach the girl's family and ask for her horoscope. The Tamil people follow the lunar calendar and the horoscope plays no small role in marital matches. Through a special horoscope reader, (today it is not unheard of to use the computer to interpret the information), the boy's family will determine if this girl will have a healthy life, be obedient, bring good luck to their family, bring Lakshmi (prosperity) with her, have healthy children.etc. "For the boy," says Meenakshi, "the horoscope is secondary."

Once the boy's family approves of a girl's horoscope they (the family with elders) will visit the girl's family to talk about property, family relations and will then agree upon an engagement. "There is a demand from the girl's family for around Rs.10,000 for the girl's sari (marital dress). Both families go to the shop and examine everything. One of the elders may say 'Oh! I am not happy about the color.' So they step out into the street to examine the colour more closely. Each family may have a certain color preference. The girl's family may say, 'in our family blue is good' and the boy's family will say, 'no, in our family we prefer to have red.' So they make a compromise and end up in purple." The elders must be happy with the choice of sari even if the girl will only wear it once in her life and then keep it as a memorial. Typically, the boy's family will purchase three saris for the girl. The marital sari is made from silk and is the most expensive, but the other two also hold great importance. One is for the engagement and the other is a simple red and white cotton sari for the morning marriage ceremony. This simple sari will later be used for her baby's cradle or be given to a female relative from her husband's family.
Engagement ceremonies vary in size. Today, they often take place in a rented hall with a large audience. But smaller ceremonies at home are still practiced. The most important aspect of the engagement ceremony is choosing the date of marriage. The Brahmin who plays an important role in both the engagement and the marriage does this. "There are two months in the year that should exclude marriage ceremonies," says Meenakshi. "December 13 to January 13 is devoted only for prayer and Lord Shiva. During this time any ceremony to do with material life will be postponed." The other month, a time known as Adimasham, falls between mid July and mid August. The most auspicious time to marry are the months after Adimasham and the month devoted to Lord Shiva. "When the Brahmin sets the marriage date," explains Lakshmi, a Tamil Aurovilian who married at the age of fifteen, "it will either be in the same month as the engagement, or the third month, fifth month or seventh month. Never will it fall on an even number. Also, the marriage is always during the growth of the moon. And never when there is no moon." The hour of marriage is another important aspect. Though always in the morning, the hour for the actual marriage commitment depends on which day the marriage is conducted on. To illustrate this, Lakshmi showed me her calendar, which not only has days, months, and lunar settings, but also the time for marriage on each day marriage is possible.

The days preceding the marriage will include prayer, pujas and trips to the temple. On the morning itself, the size and luxury of their marital hall symbolizes a family's status. The cost of hiring a marital hall can range from Rs.2,000 to Rs.20,000 or more. "In the olden days or in remote villages," explains Meenakshi, "everybody participates. In some areas the bridegroom is brought in procession - in some it is the bride. Every house owner will come and greet them in their chariot or open car. The welcoming ceremony introduces the boy or girl to the village. But now, they often marry in a hall in town and make a procession through the streets, jamming the traffic with everybody scolding."

As a Westerner attending a marriage, I have been amazed by the organized chaos. Unlike the silent rows of collected onlookers in the West, an Indian marriage is full of action, laughing, talking and celebration right through the ceremony. Both families will be involved in different preparations and certain rituals. Loud drums often drown out the happy cries of children, while jasmine and local flowers fill the air with a thick aroma. "The most symbolic thing in a Hindu marriage," explains Meenakshi, "is the tying of the Thali, also known as 'Mangalyum'. The Thali is traditionally made of a particular yellow rope though many Thalis today are made out of gold. The entire marriage ceremony revolves around this auspicious moment (which the Brahmin will indicate), when the boy ties the Thali around the girl's neck. This gesture implies that she is now tied to his community and now takes responsibility to uphold the ethnic, cultural position and status of his family.

An anthropological study states that the Thali represents a tiger's nail or claw. "When there were still jungle people, the women preferred only the strong men. Those who spirited the tiger and brought the nail to a maiden were considered a good choice and it was an honour for the girl to choose such a courageous man." Today, the Thali is a symbolic representation of the history of its caste. So, when one sees a Thali, they know what caste or religion the family is."

During the marriage ceremony there are four clay pots. Two are painted while two remain plain. While the boy ties the Thali, water is poured from the two plain pots into the two decorated ones. After the marriage, the bride and groom go to the river or pond. There the woman will fill each pot with water, representing the eternal flow of life. The man will plant seeds and the bride will feed her new husband rice and beetle leaves. This is symbolic of the work ahead (once, commonly, fieldwork) and the woman's commitment to support and nurture.

The boy then takes his bride to his family where they receive blessings and gifts. Then they will go together to the girl's home where they may stay for a day or a week. They then return to the boy's home. After some time a family member from the girl's side (usually an uncle or brother) will come and take the girl back to her parents' home. And finally, the young groom will go to retrieve his wife and together they will walk into the life ahead of them.

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